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Zidane's Real Madrid 2.0 show Barça possession isn't everything

As he looks to repeat the success of his first spell in charge, Zinedine Zidane is shaping a more direct, more physical Real Madrid side.

Zidane's Real Madrid 2.0 show Barça possession isn't everything
Gonzalo Arroyo MorenoGetty Images

There was a time when there was a direct relationship between possession and success, but that was in the days of Pep Guardiola's legendary Barcelona side. If there's one thing that this weekend's Clásico served to demonstrate, it is that dominating the ball isn't necessarily the right way to go, particularly now that Xavi and Andrés Iniesta are no longer wearing the Blaugrana shirt.

Clásico stats show Real Madrid superiority despite lower possession stats

As Madrid beat Barça 2-0 to regain LaLiga top spot on Sunday, it mattered little that Quique Setién's men had 56% of the possession and completed 643 passes to Madrid's total of 490. On their way to a first home league win over Barça since 2014, it was Los Blancos who had the lion's share of the shots (twice as many: 12 to six).

Statistics provided by Opta show that the two sides' pass-completion percentages were almost identical - 83% for Madrid, 85% for Barça - but came with one significant difference. Bernabéu head coach Zinedine Zidane instructed his charges to play a more direct brand of football that sought to attack the wings 65% of the time (compared to Barça's 50%), and key to that plan was Vinicius Júnior.

In his best performance for Madrid so far, the Brazilian ran tirelessly at the visiting defence and penetrated the penalty box 20 times (equalling his personal best, set against Melilla in last season's Copa del Rey). Another stat that underlines that possession doesn't always equate to victory is the fact that Madrid completed 44 attacking actions in the opposition box, compared to the Catalans' 18.

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Zidane shaping more direct, more physical Real Madrid side

The nine-month interlude between his two spells as Madrid coach gave Zidane an opportunity for reflection. Having won three straight Champions Leagues and a LaLiga title between 2016 and 2018, he felt it would be difficult to top his successful first tenure when he returned to the job last March - and that to have any hope of achieving such a feat, he would have to shape a more physical Madrid side.

That's why the Frenchman was so insistent on the need to sign Paul Pogba, and why he asked the club to bring in Ferland Mendy. And, when it became clear the board were not going to secure Pogba's signature, it's why he placed his faith so whole-heartedly in Fede Valverde. Indeed, the engine-room pairing of Valverde and Casemiro has become a must-pick for 'Zizou', leaving Toni Kroos and Luka Modric to fight it out for the third central-midfield spot.

The stats confirm Zidane's shift in strategy. In his first two full seasons as Madrid boss - 2016/17 and 2017/18 - Los Blancos' average possession count in LaLiga was 63% and 62%, respectively. This term, that percentage is down to 56%. It's a drop that's even more pronounced when compared, for example, with the Madrid of Julen Lopetegui, whose side registered overwhelming possession figures but lacked cutting edge. Under the Spaniard, they averaged 66% and sometimes got as high as 77%.

Real Madrid just need an out-and-out goalscorer...

Physical, direct football that looks to use the wings: that's the hallmark of Zidane's revamped Real Madrid. That's what the stats say, at any rate. On Sunday, Dani Carvajal and Marcelo created three chances each; Barcelona's full-backs, Jordi Alba and Nélson Semedo, mustered just one apiece.

There have, admittedly, been times this year when Madrid have been overreliant on balls into the area. Just look at the games against Celta Vigo, Athletic Bilbao and (in the Copa) Real Sociedad, which brought the team's highest cross counts of the campaign - 38, 37 and 36, respectively - and yielded two draws and a defeat. However, Madrid's lack of a top-class fox in the box may also have been a factor.

Either way, this is Zidane's Madrid 2.0: high pressing, plenty of physical presence, and pacey and direct attacking play that looks to hit the spaces.


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